Review: Watchworks's "Iris" and Summit's "Criminal" Show That Writing and Characters Trump Budget

. Kelly turns in a solid performance as a guy who's in over his head, scared, and confused, but he [...]

(Photo: Russ Burlingame)

Last night, for the first time in a very long time, I saw two new movies at the theater on the same day.

One of them, a long-planned trip out to see Iris from Watchworks Studios, was a family outing with my in-laws to see a film written, directed, and produced by local talent. It was filmed in and around Syracuse with a Kickstarter-funded budget. The other, seen with an old buddy of mine and former Emerald City co-worker, was Criminal, a Hollywood movie with a star-studded cast.

Iris was significantly better -- and not just because you got to watch a beautiful redhead during all the fight scenes instead of Kevin Costner.

Iris, from writer/director Chris Steinberger (of the Meanwhile... comics webseries fame), centers on a computer programmer who develops a super-hacking utility. It falls into the wrong hands, jeopardizing the security of the United States, and only he and his ex-girlfriend (the one who stole it from him in the first place) can retrieve it and prevent an economic meltdown intended to provoke revolution.

Criminal, from Israeli director Ariel Vroman (The Iceman), brings together an all-star cast to tell the story of a dangerous convict who, with the memories of a CIA operative and family man imprinted on him, sets out to track a programmer who has developed a super-hacking utility that jeopardizes the security of the United States. Only Costner's character (with the help of Ryan Reynold's brain waves) can retrieve the hacker and prevent his program from falling into the wrong hands.

As you can see, the films have enough similarities that, seeing them a few hours apart, it's difficult not to draw some parallels.

They aren't, by any stretch, actually the same film, though. Iris's female lead is kicking ass and taking no prisoners, so that even while she's emotionally damaged and none of the chaos that drives the plot would have happened if it weren't for her being selfish and irresponsible, it's difficult not to root for her. Her backstory -- told briefly -- informs why she is the person she is and successfully makes her sympathetic and relatable (helped along by the performance of Michelle Hunter, who is compelling as hell).

Criminal's corollary would probably be Costner's character, whose frontal lobe was damaged when his father abused him as a child. The result is a lack of empathy or even understanding of social norms, meaning that while he's a wildly dangerous and unlikable criminal, it's technically not his "fault," as he's essentially a big, dumb animal stalking through the world taking what he wants or needs. His backstory doesn't really inform his character so much as explain it, and it does little to make him sympathetic. Instead, they try to make the audience like him through a series of confrontations where Jericho (that's the character's name) feels a bit like Michael Douglas's character in Joel Schumacher's Falling Down. Violent, antisocial behavior is played for laughs and Jericho, bolstered by Agent Bill Pope's skills and unencumbered by a moral compass, just tromps happily through the film getting what he wants without consequence.

In both films, there's a programmer/hacker who comes to regret creating the god-software at the center of the movie. In Iris, this is the lead (Patrick Kelly's Carson Jobb). In Criminal, he's the object of the investigation, rarely seen.

Michael Pitt puts in a solid performance as the terrified Dutchman, a hacker who loses his nerve when he realizes that his prospective partner is an insane terrorist who will use his software to upend global security. He spends much of the movie hiding out in a staggeringly obvious hiding place and yet evading everyone.

In Iris, Jobb and his girlfriend Charlotte (Iris is the software, not a person) also do a pretty poor job of hiding..but since we see them proactively trying to fix the mess they've gotten the world into we'll give that element a pass (also, it's a plot point in Iris but a plot hole in Criminal). Kelly turns in a solid performance as a guy who's in over his head, scared, and confused, but he never devolves to hiding, sweating, sobbing, and groveling, which is all Pitt was given to do in Criminal.

There are monolithic villains in both films, too; Josef Ritter's Sigmund (Iris) and Jordi Mollà's Heimdahl (Criminal) are masterminds who don't get their own hands dirty, and whose eventual fate you can see coming a mile away.

In case of Criminal, Heimdahl's motivations are...unclear. He's quasi-libertarian, hoping to overthrow the government and corporate oligarchy by intimidating the world into following his anarchist lead. A "flashback" interview with the character talking to Piers Morgan does little to clarify his agenda. All we really know is that he wants the Dutchman, and the Dutchman's software, so that he can control U.S. military resources. The "why" of it, apparently, is just not that important. Or maybe it is clearly established and just not very memorable -- like everything else about Heimdahl, a character who only gets probably ten minutes of total screen time in the movie -- most of that silent, or barking orders at his right hand woman (more on her in a minute). If you asked me to describe Heimdahl in ten words or less, I would likely fail, because other than the character description that appears onscreen when he first appears -- "Xavier Heimdahl, Spanish anarchist" -- there isn't much more to him.

...Oh, wait! He owns a phone company...I guess? Some kind of tech company, anyway, and at one point The Dutchman is about to make a phone call, but reconsiders when he sees the logo for Heimdahl's company on the handset. Heimdahl does have super-hacker powers in the movie, but it's never actually intimated that it has to do with his ownership of a big tech company, though; it more seems like he's just a rogue hacker, like the Dutchman, but apparently not as good as The Dutchman or he could have created this software instead of terrorizing London to find it.

In Iris, Sigmund is a fairly straightforward, mustache-twirling villain (complete with a rather spectacular bit of facial hair), but his goal is clear and the means he uses to accomplish his ends logical enough. He's cunning, brutal, and egomaniacal, all of which plays into both his rise and fall as a villain. His strategy is to appeal to Americans who feel disenfranchised, appealing primarily to rural whites and young urban blacks, all of whom feel the current political system is stacked against them.

In both instances, the villains surrounded themselves with a seemingly-impenetrable wall of cannon fodder, and then one strong right-hand enforcer. Iris had Stephen Long's Roy. He was the quirky, creepy sort of enforcer: a not-particularly-imposing fellow who would occasionally just walk away from a bloody pile of bodies. The combat was clearly a tactile experience for him; almost everything he did was hand-to-hand, and that contributed to the wild-eyed, dangerous loner vibe he had going on.

Criminal went the other way: Antje Traue was a stone-cold badass in Man of Steel, putting up more of a physical challenge than Zod himself in hand-to-hand combat, but here, she's pretty. Yes, she's dangerous, but we see very little hand-to-hand combat. She's mentioned as ex-German special forces, but we don't see anything to really indicate she's a physical threat. She seems to be more a tracker; her cars full of gun-toting goons will take you out once she's found you. She feels very...white be an enforcer. And that's not inherently a bad thing. Certainly Traue plays the role fairly well. But she is, again, not very memorable.

If a movie is only as good as its villain, perhaps this is a big part of why I enjoyed Iris so much more than I did Criminal. Nothing about Heimdahl felt interesting or different or even particularly intimidating, and Traue's Elsa Mueller is so generic that she's a German character whose actual name is Elsa Mueller.

Before I start into some nitpicking, let's talk about something that worked -- to varying degrees -- in both films: the action and fight sequences.

Iris particularly impressed, because of its small budget and relatively young and untrained actors. The action sequences and fight choreography were spectacular, indicating to me that the people involved have a bright future in this kind of filmmaking. A special shout-out should go to Stephen Long, who had to have the biggest physical range in the movie; he had to be able to simultaneously take out a room of bar thugs and to make it believable when he's not quite able to finish off our heroes in a number of encounters. It's a delicate balancing act, and he managed it beautifully.

The other side of that equation is Michelle Hunter's Charlotte, who has a way of making everything look easy without sacrificing the realism of the movie's world or seeming too much like she's a Mary Sue or some kind of wish fulfillment character. From the first time you see her fighting, she's immediately sexy and dangerous, and Hunter's performance syncs up with the fighting style perfectly to build the character.

In Criminal, Costner's Jericho is a little of both. He's a force of nature, and his fighting style reflects that. Costner himself hands in a solid performance, not that there's all that much nuance to it...but it's clear that more than almost anything else in the movie, a lot of time and effort went into crafting his fighting style. He's the proverbial bull in the china shop, except that the bull is secretly three moves ahead of you in some kind of grand chess game. Unfortunately, Costner is more or less alone; he's like the hero of a side-scrolling video game, delivering devastating combo moves on unsuspecting mugs. Even the "major" characters like Mueller, Alice Eve's Agent Lynch, and Ryan Reynold's Bill Pope seem like they're wandering listlessly through most of the big action set pieces, too easily taken down to make them particularly impressive or, in some cases, even all that memorable.

Both films do a bit of a disservice to their stories by going too big -- and it's understandable why they do, since both deal with global stakes.

In the case of Iris, like so many indie films, they take a hit because it's difficult to convincingly portray the President of the United States or the inner-workings of the Pentagon on a limited budget. The radar room at the NSA's surveillance program looks like a storage unit with a bunch of computers lined up inside of it, and it takes you out of the narrative. Al Marshall gave a fine performance, but at no point did he feel like he was the President. The writing and the performance were on point, but it just didn't quite gel.

For Criminal, the production value was there -- Gary Oldman was obviously really riding around in a helicopter for way too much of the movie -- but the story didn't support it. The high concept -- that Reynolds died with information that could save the world, but only he had it, so let's try to copy his brain -- isn't inherently flawed (even if Ryan Reynolds already did a brain-swapping movie a couple of years ago in Self/Less). The execution stumbles, though, starting with the notion that the CIA's very first instinct is "let's try an experimental medical procedure scheduled to be five years away from human testing before even trying to search obvious hiding places."

Seriously: when you eventually find out where The Dutchman has been hiding this whole time, there is no way that you can believe anybody doing even a tiny bit of due diligence in the wake of Bill Pope's death wouldn't have bumped into him.

Iris and Criminal were films that both relied heavily on visual effects, and both had their ups and downs. The vast majority of Iris's effects looked great -- especially when you consider that it was done by college kids on a $7,000 budget. There were two or three spots where it was a bit wonky, especially a weapon in the third act that felt like it had to be created out of thin air, but for most of the movie it felt really well-done the mostly-impressive VFX helped shape the feel of the world.

Criminal seemed to rely more on practical effects than digital, and frankly its biggest problem wasn't what it could or couldn't afford, but that the filmmakers didn't seem to know what movie they wanted to be. At one point, Costner's character is running around like the Falling Down guy, his violence played for laughs. It's intended to endear him to you since the filmmakers have big plans for him later on. It doesn't work, though, because in the scene before he had brutally murdered three people, with one on-screen death being so bloody and so realistic that the comical violence a few minutes later just feels weird.

And it isn't just the audience who's asked to forgive Jericho's egregious behavior. The first time he meets Gal Gadot's Jill, he is very clearly preparing to rape her. Approaching her while she sleeps, he duct tapes her mouth and hands, then mounts her before her husband's brain waves object, and he leaves here taped to the bed, presumably for her eight-year-old daughter (who, remember, lost her father this week) to discover. The second time she meets him, he's broken into her house again -- and rather than shoot him, she lets him play with her daughter. Of course.

On that note, it's worth mentioning a major flaw with Criminal: it feels like it was made in the '90s. During the screening, I leaned over to tell my seat mate that it felt like a blending of Face/Off and Falling Down. It was full of silly tropes that don't really work now that people have learned more about computers, seen a number of good, smart spy movies, etc. Hackers in this movie are just magic, in a way you haven't seen since Sandra Bullock's The Net, and the demands of the story are such that you're expected to ignore every logical thing your brain is screaming at you.

One particular fault in Criminal, which informs some of where Iris's rookie filmmakers made better decisions than the veterans behind Criminal, is the organizational structure of the CIA in the film. The CIA is operating out of London here and, despite creating massive destruction to public and private property, causing the deaths of dozens of bystanders, and eventually mounting an all-out assault with military hardware on a public university, at no point do we see any evidence of the British government taking an interest in the operation.

Similarly, when the whole of America's military might is on the auction block for a paltry $10 million, nobody higher up in the CIA food chain contacts Gary Oldman's group leader to end this situation now.

Everything important that happens in Criminal is done by Jericho, with a little help from Pope's brainwaves. That's how the movie is, and has to be, structured -- but because this is ostensibly an officially-sanctioned mission with dozens of agents working on it (as evidenced every time they cut back to headquarters) and a massive budget (they fly in this neurosurgeon, his lab equipment, and his entire team from the U.S., in addition to flying in a U.S. prisoner to experiment on, without question), none of that makes a lick of sense.

In Iris, you're once again working on a global scale -- but the filmmakers have an intuitive understanding of what about their movie works. Well-written, well-acted characters make the story of Charlotte and Jobb interesting, and even when the wider world starts to be impacted by the events of the story, the movie itself generally resists the urge to get too much bigger than the handful of characters who have been driving the action. That intimacy and focus serves the story well. In spite of some indie film compromises and first-time-director missteps, Iris delivers on every level.

Despite the best efforts of some terrific actors, there's nothing like that in Criminal. The writing simply doesn't support it. The movie is full of dumb people making dumb mistakes, spies and hackers being terrible at their jobs, major lapses in logic, and an ending that feels as preposterous as it is unearned. The film fails on almost every level, and does so with millions of dollars and a half-dozen world-famous actors at its disposal.

Criminal is in wide release now, so you can probably find it at a theater near you. Watchworks Studios is shopping Iris for a theatrical release, with a Blu-ray and DVD release planned for late 2016.